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Militaries employing UAV swarms under Network Centric Electronic Warfare concept to counter A2/AD environment

All modern forces depend on unimpeded access to, and use of, the EM spectrum in conducting military operations. Therefore, there is a requirement to gain and maintain an advantage in the electromagnetic spectrum by countering adversary’s systems and protecting one’s own systems.  Electronic Warfare has become now a means to dominate the electromagnetic domain and therefore (EW) has become vital to all types of military operations.


Electronic warfare provide means to counter adversary’s systems while protecting one’s own systems through Electronic Attack (EA), Electronic Protection (EP) and Electronic Support (ES). EA is the electronic countermeasure which includes jamming and deception of enemy radars, electro-optic and communication systems. It also includes use of anti-radiation missiles (ARM), electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and directed energy weapons (DEW). Electronic protection (EP) is the ECCM including such measures as emission control (EMCON), communication security (COMSEC) and electromagnetic hardening. Electronic support (ES) includes all actions taken for the purpose of real-time threat reorganization in support of immediate decisions involving EA, EP, weapon avoidance, targeting or other tactical employment of forces e.g. Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and Communication Intelligence (COMINT). The capacity to identify, characterize, locate, exploit, and suppress the electromagnetic emissions of an adversary is crucial to this objective as it allows for the establishment and mapping of the adversary’s electronic order of battle.


US Military had been employing dedicated EW aircraft including Navy’s EA-18G Growler, IF-111 Raven and EC-130H Compass Call aircraft. However these manned aircrafts have become increasing under threat under increasingly Anti-access /Area denial environment, a set of overlapping military capabilities and operations designed to slow the deployment of U.S. forces to a region, reduce the tempo of those forces once there, and deny the freedom of action necessary to achieve military objectives . A2/AD capabilities enabled by integrated air defense systems that include advanced fighters, advanced surface-to-air missiles, active and passive cuing systems, and directed energy weapons have made the manned aircrafts especially vulnerable.


US is now investing in “penetrating” jammers, such as fifth-generation stealthy aircraft, that can stay out of range of Russian EW equipment and surface-to-air missiles. With smaller radar cross sections that make them difficult to detect, fifth-generation jets such as the F-35 will be harder to target and can better slip into adversary airspace in order to conduct EW and strike operations. The F35’s AN/ASQ-239 EW system serves as a signals collector system, provides radar warning, identifies the geolocation of electronic emitters, simultaneously tracks multiple aircraft, provides high-gain (i.e., highly focused radio antenna), high gain counter measures and high gain electronic attack through the radar. The Air Force also modernizing Compass Call aircraft with increased range, speed, endurance and operating altitude for better stand-off range and survivability, better enabling the Air Force to conduct electronic attack in anti-access/area denial.


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) have long been playing a vital role intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and hunter/killer missions. They have now also become essential in the prosecution of EW campaigns. UAV’s can contribute in all aspects of Electronic Warfare, from jamming and Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) to Electronic Support Measures (ESM), and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT).  EW is also vital in the protection of UAV’s.


In Afghanistan the UAV’s appear to have achieved excellent results for few losses. However, the large Unmanned Aircrafts are also as vulnerable as manned aircrafts. In June 2019, The Iranians using their Third Khordad missile battery shot down a sophisticated American drone known as a RQ-4A Global Hawk worth more than $100 million. With a wingspan of 13 meters and weighing 12 tons, it looked more like a private jet than a drone. The rocket had a range of up to 72 kilometers and could reach an altitude of 26 kilometers. Luckily for the missile, the drone could only reach up to 18 kilometers.


The future battles with adversaries having access to sophisticated air defences may result in their Shoot-downs which may not result in loss-of-life or hostages, but they do represent loss of opportunity and expenditure of resources. Another problem for the larger UAV’s is that their development process parallels that of larger (manned) aircraft, which stresses longer life, a high level of maintainability, a multi-role capability, and high reliability. The resulting systems are expensive with life-cycle costs and logistic complexities approaching those of manned aircraft.


Current drones like the MQ-9 Reaper are controlled remotely, with a pilot flying the aircraft and a payload operator aiming and launching missiles. A battery of other personnel, including military lawyers and image analysts, look over their shoulders and argue what is or is not a valid target. Future drones may have more autonomy, flying and fighting with much less human supervision, in particular when many of them work together as a swarm.


Drone swarms are multiple unmanned platforms and/or weapons deployed to accomplish a shared objective, with the platforms and/or weapons autonomously altering their behavior based on communication with one another. Drone swarms offer significant improvements to both nuclear offense, the ability to successfully deliver a warhead to a target, and defense, the ability to prevent successful delivery and mitigate consequences.


The fact that components of the swarm can communicate with one another makes the swarm collaborate with each other and to achieve a greater objective than from just a group of individual drones. Communication allows the swarm to adjust behavior in response to real-time information. Drones equipped with cameras and other environmental sensors (“sensor drones”) can identify potential targets, environmental hazards, or defenses and relay that information to the rest of the swarm. The swarm may then maneuver to avoid a hazard or defense, or  allow the weapon-equipped drone (an “attack drone”) to strike the most vulnerable target  or defense.



Militaries are now planning swarm of mini UAVs to operate under this A2/AD environment. Miniature UAV’s are of particular interest to EW operations as these UAV’s are likely to undertake some of the most dull, dirty, dangerous, and impossible missions (D3I). This has been made possible by mature UAV platform technologies (eg. guidance, airframes, control, etc.) and miniaturised EW equipment including communications jammer or an Electronic Surveillance (ES) receiver can supplement or even replace a UAV’s main payload. These Affordably Expendable alternatives offer the prospect of a capability that allows the warfighter to conduct the high value, high risk missions that are beyond the capability (or justifiability) of other systems.


Smaller, less expensive, lighter UAV’s are generally less capable than their larger, more strategic counterparts. Moreover, they also carry less capable payloads. However, this may be offset by the increased affordability of the systems, our ability to network the UAV’s and sensors to derive process gain , and our capacity to withstand. Mini-UAVs are not considered a practical replacement for the larger strategic UAV’s, although by networking their sensors we may derive greater capability.



One of the serious limitations of miniature UAVs is propulsion which severely limits their range of operations. Militaries have now turned to Network centric EW to overcome this limitation. Given the recent advances in sensor miniaturisation, data links, and fusion technologies, it may well be that a combination of several smaller UAV’s standing in at lower altitudes with a few manned platforms (or larger UAV’s) standing off and at higher altitudes provides the optimal mix for the largest range of applications.

Network Centric EW

The current platform-centric EW systems are limited in their ability to generate essential EW effects required to counter emerging threat system developments and employ advanced EW concepts. The adversaries are fielding increasingly sophisticated networked and agile systems, RF sensing and communications systems, including short-range tactical communications, long-range command and control (C2) communications networks, networked defensive systems, and RF seekers. This is partly due to rising commercial investments in RF materials, components, and subsystems thereby reducing the cost to deploy high power, agile systems.


DARPA is focusing on the development of next generation EW systems, to counter these advanced networked and agile systems using technologies such as distributed systems, coherent systems, disposable systems, providing asymmetric capabilities, and close-in remote sensing coupled with advanced jamming and spoofing.


The vision for distributed EW is a network-enabled, coordinated and spatially distributed EW system-of-systems to counter emerging asymmetric threat capabilities by providing time-critical situational awareness (SA) of adversary dispositions and activity, denial of the enemy’s SA of friendly force dispositions and activity, and camouflage and deception to dilute enemy engagement capacity.


Distributed EW will provide the following objective capabilities: wide area, real-time location determination of adversary emitters; automated recognition of threat emitter operating modes; adaptive electronic attack response to threat emitters; wide area camouflaging to deny target detection or cause misclassification of targets; wide-area deception through synchronized decoy control; denial or corruption of enemy sensing capabilities by synthetic generation of high-density clutter environments; seamless operability and graceful degradation of network- enabled functions in dense EM environments; and simplified scalability and ability to upgrade through modular and open systems architecture design.


John Thompson, director of EW campaigns at the Northrop Grumman Corp. Mission System’s Airborne C4ISR Systems division in Falls Church, Va., says EW underpins modern military operations. “We’re watching a drive to be as quiet as possible and when you do emit, do so in a very singular area. It’s all tied to survivability. If I’m surveilling, I want it to be very difficult for the other side to locate me — low probability of intercept, because he who emits first, dies,” he says. “When you think about EW, you have to look at electromagnetic warfare. I need to control all emissions from my radars and other surveillance systems. Emission control is the name of the game.


“A lot of the things we are doing today at DARPA play a critical role in integrating future EW technologies and aircraft. We want more software-defined systems, which give us more flexibility overall. It allows us to break the vendor lock and bring in third party developers, which is the path we need to go down to preserve our technical advantage in the future,” DARPA’s Javorsek says.


“Concerto [one of his programs] looks at the more advanced arrays and sensors and systems that produce a tremendous number of options,” Javorsek continues. “In the future, as we increase the diversity of the assets we have out there and the number of options within a platform and multifunction capabilities, how do we manage the high level of complexity we are imposing on ourselves so we cause the maximum number of challenges for our adversary without causing the same level of challenges for ourselves?”


US Navy testing swarm of electronic warfare drones

Complex electronic warfare (EW) platforms – such as the U.S. Navy’s EA-18G Growler – could soon release swarms of drones from the aircraft, allowing the smaller vehicles to fly ahead to scout out for radar and other battlefield emitters, and potentially even take part in electronic attack missions themselves by jamming enemy sensor networks.


The concept is part of a project the U.S. Navy is working on with Northrop Grumman known as Remedy. As part of the program, a small Class II unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) – developed by North Carolina-based VX Aerospace – would be packed into a cluster munition canister that would then eject from a “mothership” and fly a programmed route ahead of stand-off jammers and strike aircraft.


The small drones – outfitted with various payloads including electronic support measures (ESM) or electronic attack jammers – would integrate a datalink to send information back to manned aircraft for either immediate tactical use or intelligence planning for later missions. The small UAVs, which are difficult to detect, owing to their size and slow speed, would get “up close and personal” to radar systems allowing them to perform novel jamming techniques, and even infiltrate command networks to perform cyberattacks.


“It gives me more ‘attack surfaces’ to get at the enemy radar,” said John Thompson, Northrop Grumman’s director of business development for airborne C4ISR. “And because I’m so close, I can now hear more details or hear signals that previously vehicles that were further away couldn’t receive simply because of the physics.”


Since first unveiling the technology in 2017, Remedy has matured “substantially”, company leaders said. The UAV, known as the Dash X, has flown trials in which operators onboard a Northrop Grumman test aircraft controlled the drone to hunt and locate electronic targets. This fall, Northrop Grumman plans to take this concept further by linking the drone with an actual U.S. Navy Growler as part of Fleet Tactical Grid (FTG) 2019, organized by Navy Warfare Development Command.


“This is the first time it has been done with a gray airframe, an actual EA-18G Growler,” said Thompson


US Army is researching air launched effects, including reconnaissance and electronic warfare payloads, as part of a science and technology planning and development effort.


Air launched effects are a form of unmanned air vehicle (UAV) that the US Army envisions launching from aircraft, in particular its Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAV. The service wants to use the UAVs for multiple missions behind enemy lines, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), electronic warfare and loitering munition strikes, according to its online solicitation.


As rival nations such as China and Russia have developed sophisticated networks of surface-to-air missiles, the new class of drone are seen as a safer, cheaper and more effective way to carry out missions in dangerous airspace. Those tasks previously had to be accomplished by manned aircraft or expensive UAVs. In many cases the air launched effects would be disposable.


“The future multi-domain operational environment will present a highly lethal and complex set of traditional and non-traditional targets,” says the US Army in its online posting. “These targets will include networked and mobile air-defecse systems with extended ranges, and long and mid-range fires systems that will deny freedom of manoeuvre.”


The service wants air launched effects to detect, identify, locate, report and deliver lethal and non-lethal attacks against enemy targets. Some of the drones could also be used as decoys. Targets might include surface-to-air missile batteries, radar installations, command, control and communications capabilities, or logistics infrastructure.The US Army envisions three classes of air launched effect (ALE): “ALE Small” would be up to 4.5kg (10lb) and have a 20W to 50W power source; “ALE Large” would be up to 13.6kg and have a 50W to 100W power source; and, a “Special Missions” variant would be up to 45.4kg and have a 100W to 150W power source.


The service wants the air launched effects to be autonomous with “software and algorithms that fuse, process, decide and act on sensor data”. For instance, the software should allow the drones to react and adapt to an adversary’s countermeasures. The US Army aims to use information gathered in its research to likely start investing in air launched effects starting in fiscal year 2021 and continuing beyond FY2025, it says. The service says it plans to host a virtual industry day on 28 September to further explain its thinking to interested companies.


DSTO AVATAR Key Initiative

NCW exploits concepts such as information superiority to provide a competitive edge in warfare. NCW emcompasses “the ability to collect, process, and disseminate an uninterrupted flow of information while exploiting and/or denying an adversary’s ability to do the same”


Under the Autonomous Vehicle Advanced Tactical Applications Research (AVATAR) Key Initiative, DSTO plans to use formations of networked, autonomous vehicles as a model to explore the capability edge obtained when networking multiple platforms and sensors.


The ADF’s current approach to EW is platform-centric in nature and requires each platform to rely upon its own sensors. This approach requires extremely fast responses. It does, however, allow those responses to be tailored to the relevant threat. Achieving that response requires rapid detection and classification of the emitters and is typically obtained from an onboard ESM receiver loaded with the appropriate threat libraries.


AVATAR is aimed at developing a multidisciplinary, cross-environmental framework for demonstrating the advanced applications of autonomous, uninhabited vehicles. Its focus is on experimentation in the hands of the warfighter. The aim is to investigate the potential for advanced capabilities through the exploitation of new technologies and novel concepts of operation for networked, multi-platform, autonomous vehicles, sensors, and effectors.


DSTO conducted a series of trials to demonstrate potential operational concepts for miniature UAVs involved in maritime EW operations. The mini-UAVs were designed, built, and operated by Aerosonde Ltd. The payloads were designed, built, and operated by DSTO


DSTO is also considering Force Level EW for future. Unlike platform-based EW, which is tactical, short-range, reactive, requires very fast responses to the threats, and is often the last defence option, Force Level EW can be operational, pre-emptive, and long range in nature, requires more modest response times and is an early defence option.


This intelligent, autonomous, adaptive, and co-operative behaviour is an important component of the NCW and FLEW concepts and DSTO has a program of work that is exploring a range of options pertinent to their development.


The implementation of FLEW is more complex than simply widening the communications bandwidth and linking the platforms. It includes the interpretation and application of information of uneven quality and timeliness, the purification of information to preserve the quality of the network and prevent error propagation, and the coordination of assets to obtain a synchronised response. In addition to this, it must be achieved within a framework of finite resources


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